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Pussy Riot Plays HBO in 'Punk Prayer'

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- People who make brilliant art or go to jail for their beliefs aren't representative of a generation, they're exceptional, said the Russian journalist Masha Gessen last week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Gessen, author of the chilling "The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin," was referring to the feminist art collective Pussy Riot. The 20-something women did the unthinkable when they unleashed a profanity-fueled 40-second musical performance in February 2012 in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the country's premier Orthodox church.

The performance, in which the women screamed obscenities aimed at the Kremlin and the Church -- "Mother Mary, Banish Putin!" -- before stunned parishoners, quickly went online, and Gessen argues came to define the anger and frustrations that some Russians, young and otherwise, view Putin's heavy hand.

Monday evening, Time Warner's (TWX) HBO will air "Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," a documentary film that profiles the collective, their arrest on charges of hooliganism and the trial that led two of its members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, to serve two-year sentences at separate labor camps some 300 miles from Moscow.

Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are about half-way through their punishments while a third member, Yekaterina Samutsevich, was freed under a suspended sentence but is not allowed to leave Russia. Alyokhina recently ended an 11-day hunger strike begun after authorities refused to grant her access to her own parole hearing.

At the BAM gathering, Gessen read from her forthcoming book on Pussy Riot describing the torturous, Kafkaesque problems that Alyokhina's husband and 5-year-old daughter endured on a recent trip to see their mother. The portrait laid bare the hardships of prison life, made worse by being a prisoner unlike any other.

The film by Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin examines the collective, the government's show-trial orchestrated for maximum public persuasion and the women's own youthful naïvete about how Church officials would react to their performance and the extent to which the Kremlin would go to maintain its sense of order.

The women of Pussy Riot, Gessen said, are of a generation that "grew up in the absence of public space. Public conversation has been completely destroyed over the last 13 years since Putin has been in power."

"The three women we're talking about are in their early 20s," Gessen said. "They were little kids when Putin came to power. One of the results of the Putin period is that [Russian society] knows almost nothing about [these women]."

Gessen, by contrast, came of age in a very brief Hundred Flowers moment in Russian history, the years immediately after the Soviet Union collapsed when a vacuum of power allowed artists and journalists to explore freedom and dissent. Putin's rapid rise from head of the KGB to president shut the door on that liberty, that budding pluralism, Gessen said.

Under Putin, Russia has become one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a news reporter. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists has recorded 16 unsolved murders of reporters in Russia over the past decade while ranking the country ninth in the world on its Impunity Index as "among the worst countries in the world in combating deadly anti-press crime." Journalists have been threatened, attacked and beaten while Putin's government has passed a series of repressive laws aimed at eliminating public dissent, said the CPJ.

"At this point it's clear we're in the midst of a giant crackdown and it's going to continue probably for a long time," Gessen said.

Pussy Riot's radical performance, the trial and sentencing made the collective a cause célèbre among artists and activists the world over. Yet Gessen cautioned those who might portray Pussy Riot as reflecting of other young people. Judging public opinion has been made nearly impossible, she said, because of the Kremlin's domination of the media and a general societal fear to question authority.

"That their performance caused that level of reaction highlighted the profound chasm in Russian society, and serves as the opening salvo in a cultural war," Gessen said.

"That performance led a huge number of people to re-examine their assumptions about ways of confronting the system. All of that is a measure of the scale of the art" Gessen said.

"Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer," which debuted earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, will be shown Monday at 9 p.m. EDT on HBO.

Written by Leon Lazaroff in New York

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